Welcome to The Story Behind The Story series, where guest bloggers explore a big ‘why’ behind their writing journey or specific piece of writing. Today’s post is by Nicky Tate. She is unravelling several stories behind her novel The Challah Tin. The first draft of The Challah Tin was shortlisted for the Impress Prize in 2013.
The Challah Tin sprang from a workshop led by Helen Cross at Birmingham City University, back in 2013. We had to write 1,000 words of something entirely new. I settled on the idea of a wheeler dealer businessman in a city suburb like mine, who was hostile towards the encroaching gentrification of his manor.
As a setting it felt sufficiently contemporary to have some originality. Reading my local paper I was under no illusions about the vitriol something as benign as an artisan bread shop could provoke, within the local traders’ association. There was some tension, (and let’s be honest, humour) to exploit.
So, at the start, that was the story behind the story but there were more influences at play.
My protagonist is Polish. He’s called Josek. I’m not Polish but he is, in part because I thought it would be a good fit in this urban setting; Polish immigrants are a distinctive and established feature of our UK culture. So I ran with it. Another influence came from some family history.
Meet my great-great uncle Josef Splonska – here he is in 1941. It’s a very distinctive uniform he has there; clearly he is not a British Tommy. He’s on the losing team but a name like Splonska isn’t German. It’s Eastern European.
I was intrigued by this disonnance. The name is most likely Polish, Hungarian or from Belarus; places crippled by Hitler’s advances. I have for a while wondered how these invasions, suppressions and annihilations would have felt for him and his family; how it was possible for them to fit in to a country so hostile to their origins, to the extent Josef would fight on the side of the invader. Perhaps his familial links to those places had long since dried up and only the name remained – in which case does it really matter where we come from?
It is hard to find out more because the name Splonska virtually does not exist outside this tiny branch of the family tree. The best guess is that his grandmother was illegitimate, born to someone illiterate and the name referred to a place; there is a Plonsk near Warsaw. There are a lot of unanswered questions.
Before long, my story wasn’t just about a 21st century immigrant who happened to be Polish, it became immersed in these ideas of fitting in and dissonance. I took the story into Poland, to a small isolated village in the 1960s, when Josek was a child. Under the care of an aunt and separated from his parents, my protagonist doesn’t fit in to the village society with its cosy family units. His family history is similarly oblique and is in fact intentionally withheld from him. In a sense, perhaps like Josef, Josek will feel more self-assured in his adopted country – even as an immigrant, than where he began.
The texture of the novel became more sinister and unsettling, and much of this came from ruminating about this curious and unknown part of my own family’s origins.
For the record Josef Splonska himself wasn’t sinister or unsettling; my mother met him in 1956 and her enduring memory of him is as follows, “I last saw him drunkenly cycling westwards along Luxembourger Strasse with a 2l jug of beer on his head.”
There is one last story behind the story of The Challah Tin, although oddly, you could say it’s a story in front of the story.
A looming character in my book is Babba Matka, Josek’s guardian – a terrible drunken aunt who, prior to the Second World War relinquished her faith and the overt trappings of Judaism in order to marry a Gentile; something which undoubtedly saved her life. The subsequent guilt mixed with the loss of her husband, (plus a good old-fashioned dose of crazy) have had the result of making her corrode into something very unpleasant by the time she has Josek under her guardianship. But letters Josek finds show her love story from this earlier time.
I don’t know anything much about Judaism or how likely that all would have been; it was the usual sort of imaginative yarning you do when you get carried away in the conjuring of a tale.
Two people who read the manuscript said to me that the character called to mind a famous novel; The Slave by Isaac Bashevis Singer.
“My mum keeps telling me to read that”, I would respond.
But my mother’s urging wasn’t new, or prompted by the novel. My mother had been telling me to read that book since I was 17 which is well over 20 years of nagging. Here’s the thing; she never said what it was about, just that she really loved it as a teenager, and I should read it. She loaned me her copy – I didn’t get around to it. She bought me a copy but it was lost. She bought me another. It sat on the shelf.
Then finally three copies later and after these two independent friends had suggested that I should read it I broke the spine and got stuck in.
And blow me if it wasn’t a tragic love story of a Gentile and a Jew, with the concealment of faith in order to be together. Even the setting of the story, which is another village in Poland, albeit at an earlier time, gave me a strong sense of déjà vu. I must have read the bloody book. But I really hadn’t prior to that.
Of course similar story ideas are to be found everywhere (a source of frustration to authors). This was so very specific and personal however; it blew me away to feel that there was some kind of synchronicity or inevitability in both my mother and I having a strong connection to parallel stories, on such similar themes.
Or it’s just a coincidence, of course. But that is why in a strange retrospective sense, The Slave is another story behind my story. In front. Behind. What year is it? Where am I?
Writing longer works of prose brings all sorts of thing out of the woodwork; the way we feel about what is going on around us, our family history and I believe, (just like when we dream) our subconscious is at play too. It is a process which is addictively fascinating, despite or perhaps because of the unsettling aspects. Perhaps in the writing of our stories we can make sense of it all.